The Evening Standard

With Will Greenwood

Will Greenwood would walk over frozen ice, or at least fly to Alaska, should Martin Johnson ring tomorrow and ask him to play in a charity rugby match for England’s 2003 World Cup-winning team in the wastes of north America.

But ask him if he backs Johnson’s side to lift the World Cup next year and he is not ready to take out his wallet.

“I wouldn’t put money on England winning the World Cup,” Greenwood says. “Why? Because I can’t imagine New Zealand missing out yet again.

England at 16-1? I prefer surer odds.”

Not that he thinks, like some of his fellow ex-professionals, that England’s play is lacking in imagination.

“I don’t buy it that the skill level is not as good,” he says. “It’s far greater than any team I ever played with. I would be terrified to play with them.”

For Greenwood, the problem is far simpler and comes down to how much trust the players have for one another. “Until the players feel that for each other you are never going to be winners,” explains the former centre.

“The confident team is made up of guys who know each other, grew up together. You need to have a team that gets to 500 caps to develop that trust and give yourself a chance of winning the World Cup.”

Sir Clive Woodward’s winning 2003 side had 700 caps. In addition, half the team had been part of the England Under-21 side of 1993 that were badly beaten on their tour of Australia.

“We learned from those mistakes,” Greenwood says. “It is as important for players to understand each others’ weaknesses as much as each others’ strengths. Psychologists are talking rubbish when they say you only reach for the stars when there are no weaknesses. The way to create a good team is finding out where they are not good.”

And it was because players knew each other intimately, says Greenwood, that the 2003 team turned defeats into victories. “In the quarter-final we were losing to Wales, in the semi-final we were down against France and in the final we were behind to Australia.

“In such situations weaker teams crumble. But teams that knuckle down are the ones that win.”

Greenwood will not change his view even if England, who have won both their matches so far against Wales and Italy and face Ireland at Twickenham on Saturday, go on to win this year’s Six Nations. That is because the 37-year-old feels the rugby map has changed.

“It is not about being kings in this little part of the world. Until you can win on the road against the big three [All Blacks, South Africa and Australia] you are not a great team. This applied to Ireland last year and it will apply to England should they win this time.”

However, none of this shakes his belief that Twickenham chiefs have finally backed the “right horse” in Johnson.

“Johnson understands that rugby is a simple game,” he argues. “His reading of the game is stronger than anyone I have ever spoken to. His strength lies in making sure that the players understand there is a fine margin between victory and defeat. When England were bad in the autumn they were never terrible. When England beat Wales and Italy they were not great. Johnno’s task is creating the right environment.”

If creating the right environment is essential to success on the field then Greenwood has just as much faith in rugby’s ability to influence the wider social environment. This is the motivation behind his latest television series, the School of Hard Knocks, filmed in Stratford with 20 unemployed kids including those who had committed armed robberies, inflicted grievous bodily harm or were refugees.

Few of them had ever picked up a rugby ball before and none of them knew who Greenwood was. He started the series being very cynical about it. “The kids,” he told his fellow presenter, Scott Quinnell, “go home with a couple of free t-shirts and will not give a toss about what we teach them.”

But then he found the discipline of the game reaching out to the children. However, if this says much for the redemptive power of the game, Greenwood has never let rugby define his life.

For many, the abiding memory of him is sinking to his knees minutes after Jonny Wilkinson kicked for glory in Sydney. Now, as we lunch in a Marco Pierre White restaurant, with Greenwood wearing a tailored suit, he says: “You know there is a great photo of Wilko about to kick the drop goal. People’s desire to listen to what I have to say was magnified by a multitude of 250 because the kick did go over. But the real lessons I learned in life are no different, whether the drop goal goes over or Wilko misses.”

What about the pressure he felt as Wilkinson took the kick? Greenwood is laughing even before I finish the question. “Pressure is when the Bundesbank has cut interest rates, you are on the trading floor and are not expecting it. That is proper panic. Forget about the drop goal. Jesus, that is like a walk in the park. The World Cup Final is easy compared to a trading floor.”

My first thought is that Greenwood, having attained the summit of rugby, is being whimsical. However, he is not only deadly serious but defining a man who is almost the last of a special rugby breed. With rugby turning professional in 1996, Greenwood, halfway through his career, had to make a dramatic change. He tried and failed to hold on to his job as a City trader for HSBC but, in the end, he could not combine professional rugby with his City job. Yet it is the life before he turned pro that still remains magical.

We are meeting the day before his son Archie’s sixth birthday party and he proudly lists the friends who will gather for it, all from his university or City days. “Ask me,” he says, challengingly, “if I would swap everything to be born 10 years later, leave school and go straight into professional rugby and win the World Cup in 2015. Or stay as I am and not win the World Cup? I would not swap. I would not swap my years at university and in the City. I have made great friends in rugby but not even close to the mates I made away from the sporting field.”

Rugby has taught Greenwood nothing that compares to what he learned at university and on the trading floor.

“I am living in a dream world when I think of university life, learning to live away from home, putting in a job application, getting up at five in the morning, getting on the tube, working with boys on an outcry’ trading floor. That is where I got my experiences.”

Not that his ability to compartmentalise his real life from his rugby life has endeared him to his fellow players, particularly in the middle of the 2003 World Cup. On the Monday of the weekend that England were due to play South Africa, Greenwood heard that his wife was in intensive care carrying their child Archie. The year before they had lost a child, Freddy, and Greenwood was anxious to see his wife. The news was kept private.

Only Woodward, Johnson and a couple of coaches knew and it was agreed that after the match Greenwood would fly home.

“I scored against South Africa and I had the biggest grin on my face. When my team-mates learned I was flying home some of them questioned me and said: How could you do that, how could you smile?’ I replied: You don’t get it. While you are on the field for 80 minutes it is the mental thing. You can have no other thought than achieving the goal of beating them.’ As soon as the game is over I’m going home.”

As a World Cup winner, millions would give anything to be in Greenwood’s shoes, but the man himself would give all that he has for being in a Manchester City shirt in May 1999, playing at Wembley in the Second Division play-off against Gillingham.

“You can keep the World Cup Final,” he says. “I have never watched it again. My favourite moment in sport is City against Gillingham, 1999 Wembley. 2-0 up Gillingham took off Carl Asaba, they thought they had the game won. Then Kevin Horlock scored and Paul Dickov netted and we won on penalties. The place was going mental. I went through every single emotion in the course of 130 minutes that day and I would give my right hand to live that day again.”

It seems strange that Greenwood should be so drawn to the round ball, for this was a boy made for the oval ball. His father, Dick, both played rugby for England and coached the national side. In Hurst Green, the little Lancashire village where he grew up, Brian Ashton, Johnson’s predecessor as England manager, was a neighbour.

“But,” he says, “I never had any rugby heroes. It was much more the England football team in 1990. I would rather have been an England footballer.”

And, had he been so, he would not have found it hard to share a dressing room with John Terry. “I have no hesitation in saying that whatever issues there have been, in the first match of the World Cup, if Wayne Bridge is left-back and John Terry is centre-half, it will not make one iota of difference. I would not have sacked him as captain.”

This is easily said by a man who cannot understand the need for society to claim sportsmen or women as role models. Many may see Greenwood as such a hero. But he likes to hold on to the idea that he was a simple rugby player for whom happiness is that.

“The kids are all right and, if I have enough money for a pint and curry on a Saturday night, then I will find my own level.”

If you have reached the stars, as Greenwood has done, it may be easy to present yourself as a man of the people. But there is a convincing ring of authenticity in the way he makes his case.

School of Hard Knocks is screened by Sky Sports at 10pm each Tuesday from next week


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